Aperghis piccolo practice sexism

The Dong

I have been meaning to keep an online account of my adventures with Georges Aperghis’ piccolo solo “The Dong with a Luminous Nose”, but it’s already three weeks before the performance and I haven’t written much. There are practical reasons for this – one is we ironed out the final version with cuts and tempo changes a few days ago. Only now do I have a sense of the piece as a whole and feel that I can do the real work.

Since he has heard and approved my recent draft recording, only now am I confident that my strategy for playing all the quarter tones, the types of vocalizations and interpretation of timings are ok. I find it really difficult to invest in the technical details of a piece unless I know the overall musical and compositional approach, because only by knowing this, do I know how to technically approach the piece.

Although I have heard and performed a number of Aperghis’ pieces before, the ARTE documentary from 2006 “the composer who reinvented musical theatre” gave me more insight.* Here is a quote that I like:

“…observing a performer in their day-to-day life, during rehearsals, over coffee, in their usual behavior, one sees their inner charm and from that point on, writing for them, to my mind, means believing them to be much stronger than they are, musically, I mean. So often, when the score arrives, they are happy yet anxious due to its difficulty. Because I feel they are capable of it, that’s the fault of love. I feel they can do anything, and they can, because they do, but at a price. “

Aperghis and I got to know each other personally while he was preparing to compose Intermezzi for Ensemble Musikfabrik. In our conversations, I mentioned that I enjoyed the nonsense texts of Edward Lear. “The Dong” is a text by Lear (his choice), and to my knowledge, this is the only work of Aperghis that really has a narrative. His other works seem much more abstract and cathartic.

I have also been thinking about music and text. A lot of text that goes into music these days is political or makes some kind of statement. Although I support this wave of awareness and wokeness, I still think there is a place for words in music as phonetic material with artistic, or dare I say it, entertainment value. If the text of this piece included the words “damn the patriarchy” or “Frauenpower forever” it would perhaps make me feel better about myself, giving me that warm, fuzzy feeling you get with acts of solidarity and “doing one’s bit”. But in the end, what bit is that? My performance would change no one’s social perspective. (And in Darmstadt, where the premiere is to be held, I would be preaching to the choir.) My bit would be better played out by volunteering in a homeless or refugee shelter, or helping people safely vote. This is not to say I don’t believe that certain forms of art are capable of promoting and instigating social change.

So I will perform and narrate Edward Lear’s text, with all its humor, overtly phallic symbolism** and allusions to interracial love. Why not? I might even perform it from the perspective of a Jumbly Girl.

Illustration by Edward Gorey

*I would share the link, but my automatic embedder is giving me grief.

**Ok maybe my mind is in the gutter.

auditions discrimination sexism

You can’t escape yourself

moonI made myself laugh while doing Moon Salutations (yoga exercises similar to the Sun Salutations) last night. The thought came to me: if I were to suddenly become an enlightened being, I would frighten myself. The thought really amused me and I got to thinking about the idea of self, escape, and whether there is a separate self from which we can escape. These questions are not within the scope of my flute blog.

But wait, if there is no escape, can’t we at least as artists live in ways which allow growth and re-definition?

Yes, to a degree. I have “escaped” the person I could have been, had I not become a musician. However, there are basic formats I can’t escape, reminders of which never cease. In a post from 2009, I recounted the sexist attitudes of an old-world, now-deceased teacher who, by his own admission, gave more professional attention his male students. Later that same year, I met a teacher of my own generation who, in front of his class of female students, said he would take any male student no matter how he played just to escape drowning in a sea of estrogen. OK, the drowning-in-estrogen part I made up, but he may as well have said it.

This is not going to be a feminist rant, I promise, but allow me one more example, hopefully more universal. A student of mine played brilliantly for a final exam. During the critique and pep-talk, one professor, who I have long known to be a decent person, said to her: you are a great player, but you need to project yourself, your musical presence (not meaning the sound, it was huge) more strongly on stage if you want to get anywhere because you are a small Asian woman. I thought of what might happen if this were an American institution, the hue and cry of sexism and racism it would incite. However, I know this person, he was sincerely trying to be helpful. He was just very direct and personal, which Germans tend to be (although the Russians certainly give them a run for their money).

Two deductions I can make of all this: 1) Flutistic reality can be seen as liberating. When I was younger, I thought ability and accomplishment were the answers to everything, and I was a prisoner to the idea that I was my flute playing. When it comes to being in the profession, though, any flutist in the running is awesome, so it is you, your musicianship, your attitudes, your person, who ends up with the job. Or not. However, if you were in the running, you are still awesome and still you, if you have ever taken time to cultivate a you. Perhaps not everyone’s idea of liberty, but for me works.

2) There is no escape from who you are, neither should there be a need for escape. In a perfect world. The world does need changing, but I am not a fan of revolution, it usually brings back the same mess in a different guise. I believe more in the permanent, although maddeningly slow, changes that evolution brings. What can one do except work towards being a kick-ass flutist and kick-ass person? Many things, I suppose, but those are the things I have chosen.
Photo credit: Maxim Senin

sexism Syrinx

Syrinx – who is playing whom?

Peter Paul Rubens- Pan & Syrinx (Staatliche Museum, Kassel)

A thought occurred to me today while playing and listening to several recordings of Debussy’s Syrinx. Most likely, it was not an original thought. We all learn the story this of piece: its role as incidental music in Gabriel Mourey’s Psyche, and the story of Pan. This half-goat, half-man pursues the nymph Syrinx, who, at the water’s edge, in order to escape her pursuer, is transformed into a water-reed. Pan then transforms a bundle of these reeds into a flute, whereupon he plays his dying lament.

Mostly I hear flutists (and program-note writers) describe this piece in terms of Pan. It’s Pan’s song, Pan’s longing, and Pan’s dying. But is it really? Is Syrinx only a bundle of reeds? Does she have a voice of her own, and if so, what does she sing?

A short digression:
Please understand I am not trying to interpret this piece in terms of sexual politics or present some sort of feminist’s viewpoint. I got to thinking about Syrinx when trying out different spectrums of sound in order to produce color changes. Why did I get hung up on this? Well, I’ll divulge another pet peeve I have: flutists who make “color changes” only by adding air to the sound, thinking that an airy, unfocused sound is sufficient for a difference in color. Sometimes it is. I’ve heard it in Debussy, I’ve heard it in slow movements of Bach, and on many other occasions. It is soo boring if one only uses this trick. Sometimes some air in the sound (or complete air) is musically appropriate. But if that is your only choice of “color change” then please try out something else: work with different harmonic components in the sound. One way this can be done is by changing the vowel sound inside the mouth.

Anyway, back on topic – experimenting with color changes led to thoughts of transformation. Then I thought “hey!, that’s not Pan, that’s Syrinx!” She’s the one who morphs.

That led to other aspects of Syrinx’ role: flight, and, like Pan, longing. Not the sexual longing which is associated with Pan, but perhaps a longing for freedom of corporal constraints, or longing for unity with the elements. You can add on your own interpretation here. Please note I am not denying the element of sexual longing in this work – it is certainly there.

There are probably other elements of Syrinx’ role I’ve not thought of yet.

When I thought about the subject of flight, that led me to think about the rhythm. Peter Lloyd tells of his lessons with Caratge in Paris on this piece. After Lloyd’s first run-through of Syrinx, Caratge sent him home with his tail between his legs, admonishing him to “play with a metronome!” When Lloyd came back having done so, only then was Caratge ready to begin working on the piece musically. Peter-Lukas Graf also lays emphasis on attention to the rhythm. He points out that this is not “free music” it is “freely-composed music” (having neither conventional form nor tonality). Because the rhythms for that time-period were rather complex, it is all the more necessary to make clear contrasts of duplets (16th or 8th notes) and triplets.

And what about rubato? Absolutely! It’s part of the fright and flight that I imagine the nymph Syrinx experienced. Fleeing, then slowing down to peek from behind a tree to see if Pan has lost her trail, then fleeing again. Much of this yearning forward and holding back is already composed into the piece, so if one adds to it, one must understand the framework wherein it occurs.